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Sight, But No Vision: The Sin of the Spies (Parshas Shelach)

parsha sefer bamidbar Jun 01, 2021




It was a stormy night, and a battleship was on exercise at sea. The captain stood on the bridge, peering into the foggy night ahead. Suddenly, he heard the look-out shout from the observation post. “There’s a light on the starboard side!”

“Is it steady or moving?” the captain asked quickly.

“It’s moving,” the lookout replied.

This meant that they were on a direct collision course with another ship. The captain immediately ran up and grabbed the ship radio. “We are on collision course!” he signaled to the other ship. “Change course 20 degrees immediately.”

The signal quickly came back, “Advisable for you to change course.”

Infuriated, the captain replied, “I am a captain. Change your course NOW.”

“I am a seaman, second class. You had better change your course 20 degrees,” came the reply.

By now, the captain was outraged. “I am a battleship. Change course or suffer the consequences!”

Back came the signal, “I am a lighthouse.”

The captain changed course.


As human beings, we have the remarkable ability to jump to conclusions, assuming that we know the truth of a situation when we, in fact, have completely misjudged it. One of the most powerful learning experiences a person can have is a paradigm shift- a shift in perspective that causes us to see something in a fundamentally new way.


The Sin of the Meraglim


In Parshas Shelach, Moshe sends the Meraglim (spies) to scout out the land of Eretz Yisrael (Israel). With the exception of Yehoshua and Kalev, the Meraglim return with a negative report- attempting to dissuade the Jewish people from entering Eretz Yisrael. While we often think of their account as malicious libel, this does not seem to be the case when the story is read on a surface level. As the spies scouted the land, they witnessed many giants burying their dead, and upon return, the spies reported this to the Jewish People. Chazal explain that the Meraglim violated the prohibition of lashon hara (evil speech). However, they did not speak about people, only a piece of land! Does lashon hara really apply to inanimate objects?[1] Furthermore, the Meraglim spoke the truth. They saw people dying, and they passed on that information. Was it not their job to report what they saw?

In Megilas Eichah (Lamentations), the verses in the first four perakim (chapters) are written in alphabetical order. However, in most chapters, the verse starting with the letter peh appears before the verse that starts with the letter ayin, counter to their alphabetical order. The Gemara[2] enigmatically explains that this reversal is due to the fact that the Meraglim placed their mouth- “peh”- before their eye- “ayin”.[3] What does this mean, and what is the connection between Eichah and the sin of the Meraglim?


Proper Sight


There are two levels of reality: The first is how things appear on the physical surface; the second is the meaning that lies behind that exterior. Correspondingly, there are two levels of sight: the first is physical sight, which allows you to see the physical surface of the object; the second is spiritual sight, the mechanism of giving meaning and depth to that which you see. Improper sight is seeing only that which is on the surface, without sourcing it back to its root, without seeing what truly lies behind it. When the surface no longer reflects a deeper truth, it becomes a shell of an object, lacking any internal meaning, like a body without a soul. If one were to look at someone's face and see only flesh and bone, without recognizing that there's a consciousness, a living soul, behind that surface, that would be an egregious corruption of sight. Their physical sight may be accurate, but the meaning they have given to what they physically saw is far from the truth. Similarly, when one witnesses an event, they have the opportunity to discern the meaning that lies behind it. If, however, they do not ascertain the truth that lies beneath the surface level, they are likely to project their personal feelings and perceptions onto the situation instead, twisting its true meaning to align with their subjective reality.


The Meraglim: Corruption of Sight


The Meraglim's physical sight was intact; what they lacked was spiritual sight. They physically saw giants burying their dead. But they interpreted this to mean that the “land consumes its inhabitants”.[4] In reality, as the Gemara[5] explains, this was a miracle that Hashem performed to aid the Meraglim in their mission. Hashem killed off the leaders of the giants in each city so that the dwellers would be distracted with their funerals, ensuring that the Meraglim could travel through Eretz Yisrael undetected. The death of the giants was the external reality; the Meraglim’s mistake lay in projecting faulty meaning onto it.

Similarly, the Meraglim reported to Klal Yisrael that when they came across the giants, "we were like grasshoppers in oureyes".[6] They projected their fear and lack of faith onto the giants. In their own eyes, the giants viewed them as grasshoppers. They were no longer conveying an account of objective reality, rather, they were projecting their own spiritual and existential insecurities onto their experience. This was their two-fold mistake. The Meraglim not only misunderstood their experience, but they then reported this distortion back to Klal Yisrael. We can now begin to explain why this was a violation of lashon hara.[7]


Lashon Hara: Corruption of Speech


As we have previously explained,[8] speech embodies the power of connection. It is the mechanism that enables us to connect with other people, to overcome the barrier between us. Lashon hara takes the very tool of connection, speech, and uses it to disconnect people from each other. When you speak negatively about someone, you create a wall between the subject of your negativity and the person you are speaking with. The very tool of connection has been corrupted to achieve its opposite goal.[9]

As the Ramban explains,[10] everything that the Meraglim said was "true" in the physical sense, but they failed to see what lay beneath the surface. This itself is the epitome of lashon hara: taking the truth and distorting it in order to create harm. Lying is a separate problem, violating the prohibition of “midvar sheker tirchak”.[11] The evil of lashon hara is not a fabrication, but a corruption of the truth. The Meraglim suffered from a spiritual disease of ayin rah (an evil eye). They had sight, but no vision; they saw, but were blind.


Eretz Yisrael


Through the mechanism of speech, the Meraglim disconnected Klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael. It therefore seems that the Meraglim’s sin of lashon hara was in creating a scission between Klal Yisrael and the land of Eretz Yisrael, an inanimate object. However, when taking into account the deep nature and role of Eretz Yisrael, this takes on great significance. Eretz Yisrael is the place where Hashem connects to the world and most intimately connects to Klal Yisrael.[12] By using speech to disconnect Klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael, the Meraglim were separating Klal Yisrael from Hashem. In a deep sense, this was the most nefarious form of lashon hara imaginable!


Peh Before Ayin


The Marahal[13] uses these principles to explain the placement of the peh before the ayin in Megilas Eichah. Proper speech requires first connecting yourself to a deep root of truth and spiritual thought, and then using speech as the medium for revealing that truth into the world. This revelation of truth is performed through the use of tangible, finite words. When Moshe transmitted the Torah, he revealed the essence of spiritual truth in the form of concretized words.[14]The speech and ensuing words were a loyal reflection of the truth.

The letter ayin literally means “eye”. As we have previously developed, [15] the spiritual concept of seeing and sight reflects the concept of truth. When you see something, you see it as it is, in a static state. When you look at a picture, you grasp it in its entirety, instantaneously. There's no process of constructing or building the picture in your mind, everything is just there, all at once, without any effort.[16] Your eye is also the organ that most loyally reflects and reveals who you are. The eyes are the window to the soul; one can see the inner depth of a person through their eyes.  The word “ayin” is also connected to the word ma'ayan, a wellspring, a surface that contains endless depth beneath it.[17] Ayin therefore reflects the concept of reaching that which is hidden, higher, and transcendent.[18]

The letter peh literally means “mouth”. The reason ayin comes before peh in the Aleph Beis is to portray the ideal process of spiritual speech. First, one must connect themselves to the ayin, to the transcendent truth. The goal of the “peh”, the mouth of speech, is to then take the “ayin”- the truth- and express it into this world through the medium of speech. Thus, speech is meant to be a loyal reflection of something deeper, of spiritual truth.

A corrupted “ayin” (eye) does not reflect anything deeper. It sees only the physical world, disconnected from the spiritual and transcendent. A corrupted “peh” (mouth) is a mouth that speaks without reflecting a higher “ayin”- a higher truth. This is what it means for the peh to come before the ayin. In such a case, the mouth speaks without first connecting to anything deeper, unwilling to source itself back to its spiritual root. As a result, the “ayin” (eye) no longer reflects the spiritual truth. This corrupted eye sees only the surface, and projects itself onto this physical surface.[19] This was the sin of the Meraglim, a corrupted eye and corrupted speech. They were unable to see past the surface, unable to see the true depth that lay beneath the surface of Eretz Yisrael. While in truth, this was the place where Hashem most potently connects to this world, all they saw was a physical plot of land. As a result of their corrupted sight, their speech reflected nothing more than their own ego. Their speech was lashon hara, speech that disconnected Klal Yisrael from both Eretz Yisrael and Hashem Himself.

This is why it is specifically in Eichah that the peh comes before the ayin. Eichah laments our loss of the Beis Ha’Mikdash, our diminished connection with Hashem in Eretz Yisrael. In a deep sense, Eichah laments the actualization of what the Meraglim attempted to achieve: a disconnect between the Jewish People and Eretz Yisrael, a disconnect between us and Hashem.[20]


Tzitzis: The Correction of Sight


At the end of Parshas Shelach, following the sin of the Meraglim, the Torah introduces us to the mitzvah of tzitzis. Why is the mitzvah of tzitzis introduced specifically at this point? Is there any connection between tzitzis and the sin of the Meraglim? To understand the connection between the two, we must first recall an important principle.


The Bent Path and the Straight Path


Imagine you are walking along a straight path. At any point along the path, if you turn around, you can see exactly where you came from. However, if the path suddenly takes a sharp turn and bends off its straight course, then if you turn around, you can no longer see the starting point of your journey. The same is true of the physical world in which we live. Originally, the physical world loyally and perfectly reflected its spiritual root. When you looked around, you saw and experienced Hashem, and you knew that He created the world; it was like looking back down a straight path, directly back to the Source of the world. However, when Adam sinned, the entire world fell. [21] The world became a bent path, and it is no longer clear where we come from. When we look around, we no longer see a universe that clearly and loyally reflects its Godliness.[22]


The Secret of Tzitzis


This principle of the straight and bent path is the secret behind Tzitzis. Tzitzis are only required on a cornered garment.[23] Only when the edge of the garment begins to bend, are we obligated to attach tzitzis to the corners. The straight lines of the tzitzis straighten the bent path of the garment. Thus, tzitzis represent our ability to source ourselves back to Hashem, even on a bent path. 

The details of tzitzis beautifully reflect this idea. The tzitzis strings are techeiles, dyed a beautiful ocean blue color.[24]This reminds us of the sea, which reminds us of the sky, which then reminds us of the Kisei Ha'kavod (Hashem’s throne), and ultimately helps us trace ourselves back to Hashem Himself.[25] The gematria (numerical value) of the word “tzitzis” is 600, and when you add the eight strings and the five knots, you get a total of 613, corresponding to the 613 mitzvos we use to connect ourselves to Hashem.[26]


The Potential of Sight


We all have our own unique paradigms: of ourselves, of the world around us, and of Hashem. We have the power of choice; we get to choose how we perceive reality and the meaning we give to our experiences. Many of us have sight, but only a few among us truly see. The goal of life is to embark on a genuine journey of shifting our paradigms, of aligning our spiritual sight with the true nature of reality. We will never achieve perfect spiritual sight, but we can get a little closer every day. The more we attach ourselves to the truth, the more our peh will become a genuine expression of our ayin. May we be inspired to continuously expand our horizons, revolutionize and reconstruct our set paradigms, and build deeper eyes through which we see the world. 


[1] See article on Parshas Tazria and Metzora for more on the topic of lashon hara.

[2] Sanhedrin 104b.

[4] Bamidbar 13:32.

[5] Sotah 35a.

[6] Bamidbar 13:33.

[7] While there are various explanations regarding the Meraglim’s motivation to deliver a negative report, this is not the focus of the present article. In brief, here are some of the opinions:

1- They wished to keep Moshe alive. (They knew that upon entering Eretz Yisrael, Moshe would die.)

2- They were scared that they would not be able to overpower the giants.

3- Ego: They wished to maintain their elevated status. (The Meraglim were Nesi'im. They feared that upon entering Eretz Yisrael, they would lose their positions of honor).

4- They feared losing the constant miracles of the midbar. [They knew that upon entering Eretz Yisrael, Hashem would no longer miraculously intervene, as He did in the midbar (desert). The did not want to transition to a world of teva (the natural), losing the constant miracles such as the ananei ha’kavod (clouds of glory), manna, and be’er Miriam (Miriam's wellspring).]

[8] See article on Parshas Tzav, section: “Speaking: Act of Connection.” See also articles on Parshas Tazria and Metzora.

[9] For more on the topic of lashon hara, see article on Parshas Tazria.

[10] Ramban Al Ha’Torah, Bereishis 2:9.

[11] Shemos 23:7.

[12] See article on Parshas Ekev for more on the uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael. See article on Parshas Tzav for more on the unique role of the Beis Ha’Mikdash.

[13] Netzach Yisrael 9.

[14] See article on Parshas Beha’aloscha, section: “Moshe’s Speech Impediment”.

[15] See article on Parshas Vayigash, section: “The Spiritual Concepts of Seeing and Hearing”.

[16] This is in contrast to the spiritual concept of hearing, which represents a process, a movement through time, an evolutionary progression, one of effort, concentration, and organization of parts.

[17] One can draw forth water- the source of life (mayim chaim)- by going into the depths of the wellspring.

[18] This is why learning Gemara b’iyun means learning Gemara deeply, sourcing the physical expression of many varied opinions back to a higher root and seeing how all the fragmented parts of the sugya connect to form a sophisticated and beautiful expression of a higher truth.

[19] For more on the concept of the letter ayin and its potential corruption, see article on Parshas Metzora, section “Nega: Corruption of Oneg”.

[20] For more on the concept of Eichah and its relationship to ayekah, see article on Parshas Vayikra, section: “Ha’Min Ha’Eitz: The Source of Haman.” See specifically the last paragraph of this section.

[21] See article on Parshas Mikeitz, section: “Adam Ha’Rishon”.

[22] Instead, we see we see a physical world of multiplicity and twoness. For more on the topic of twoness and its relationship to oneness, see article on Parshas Balak.

[23] Four-cornered garment.

[24] Bamidbar 15:38.

[25] See Menachos 43b.

[26] See Rashi, Bamidbar 15:39. Food for thought: the mitzvah of mezuza (which is placed bent on the doorpost) and the copper snake (bent) on the mateh (straight) in the midbar which overcame the plague both connect to this topic but are beyond the scope of this article.


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